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Ball Don't Lie

Harvard Business School has a class on the marketing of LeBron James

Eric Freeman
Ball Don't Lie

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One of the weirder aspects of LeBron James' status is that people analyze him as a public figure just as much as they do his skills on the court. When James earned scorn for failing in the fourth quarter of games, the criticism was more about his failings than his inability to make a shot. The perception is that the same personal faults that led to "The Decision" is generally related to his problems winning a championship.

That's silly, not the least of which because "The Decision" was a marketing decision full of faulty plans and in-game issues tend to relate to decisions made on the fly, plus weird things like physical flaws in a shooting stroke or poor ballhandling. They're different enough, in fact, that one of the best business schools in the country has decided to analyze LeBron's marketing in depth. Shira Springer has the story for The Boston Globe (via PBT):

For 80 minutes, students discuss James and his brand, and debate his best marketing opportunities. By making James a case study, the course provides a compelling lesson in what can determine success or failure in the volatile world of celebrity marketing.

"When Harvard Business School approached us for a case study, it was a 'wow' moment,'' said Maverick Carter, a childhood friend and business partner of James.

James and his business partners happily cooperated with the research process, giving access and candid assessments of marketing choices, making the case study something of a page-turner.

The Miami Heat forward is but one study subject. Others include Lady Gaga, Real Madrid, Maria Sharapova, the NFL, Tom Cruise, and Radiohead. The course gives students virtual backstage passes to Hollywood, to the highest levels of European soccer, to arena concert tours, to all the important places where the cult of celebrity reigns and represents potential revenue.

It's a great idea for a class, in part because the brands of creative artists and athletes change far more often than those of multinational corporations like Coca-Cola and Nike. Marketers need to know how to handle sharp changes in public opinion while still maintaining a baseline sense of what the person or group stand for. It's a special challenge involving sometimes very different short and long-term goals.

The depth of this course also serves as a reminder that basketball fans and writers sometimes consider LeBron in oversimplified terms. While "The Decision" was a horrible piece of garbage that never should have happened, the ways in which LeBron and his team handled the announcement -- from the Jim Gray interview to the second-banana status of the Boys and Girls Club during the whole show -- can be quite instructive. LeBron is far from perfect, but it's possible to take his missteps as learning experiences rather than examples of innate moral deficiencies.

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